A Resting Revolution

Resting CatSo, as you know, if you’ve been following my writing and coaching, I’m heavily into helping people reclaim their “true nature.” It is what I’ve always done, but with a new sense of purpose and urgency as change begins to make our habitual ways of behaving obsolete and counterproductive. I frequently review a list of “brain rules” created by Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist who specializes in understanding the brain. Medina’s first brain rule is that we learn best outside. Another is that since every brain is wired differently, we should follow our own impulses rather than adhering to rigid external rules. But I think my favorite brain rule is rule number seven. Four words: “Sleep well, think well.”
It seems reasonable to suppose that as humans evolved, tribes or bands of people were safe if not everyone slept at the same time. “Night owls” like me could tend the fires and watch for predators at night. By the time we hit the hay, the tribe’s “morning people” would be alert and standing guard. That’s the only explanation I have for the fact that I—and all my blood relations including my children—simply cannot fall asleep early or bounce out of bed at sunrise feeling like a million bucks. By contrast, my partner Karen apologizes each night at 8:30 when she becomes completely unable to function. “I just need to close my eyes for a minute,” she’ll say, and then drop into a sleep so profound we have literally thrown parties without waking her up. Early morning, Karen turns into the US Army. She moves so fast and gets so much done that my groggy eyes cannot follow the motions. 
In the world that is becoming, as our society undergoes rapid change, we must return to our true nature in terms of how we rest and relax as well as in terms of how we work and play. Our “normal” terms of sleeping and waking were created so that factory workers could all show up at the assembly line at the same moment. School started in the pre-dawn hours for adolescents so they could be home to help with chores on the farm during most of the day. (Schools also give summer vacations because the summer months required children to stay on the farm to help during the most active part of the crop cycle.) There is no reason to continue scheduling our activities based on a model from the 19th century. We don’t work effectively when we are on a schedule that isn’t natural for our own individual bodies. Studies have shown that adolescents desperately need to sleep late in the morning and that forcing them to show up in class at pre-dawn hours can cause everything from emotional volatility to traffic accidents. 
So forget the Industrial Revolution. Let’s foment the Resting Revolution. If you want a nap right now, the most intelligent thing you can do is take it. If you want to perform well, sleep until your body wakes up on its own. If you have small children and you are severely sleep deprived, know that finding a way—any way—to get sleep is the only way to give children a healthy, cheerful, available parent.
I know this is asking a lot. But any way you slice it, today’s world is going to ask for everything you can give. Make your first priority your own well-being if only to serve the greater good. I would say more about this, but I really need a nap.

22 replies
  1. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    As I am reading this at 2 am, cough cough… 🙂

    I don’t know if you’ve heard about this group from Denmark that promotes accepting the night owl tendency (for example, starting high school classes later in the morning), but I heard a radio documentary about them some years ago.

    Below is an excerpt from an article about them from the Globe and Mail newspaper that I found randomly just now on a search engine:

    ” “Why should we have the work hours of farmers and peasants forced upon us in this day and age?” says Danish engineer Camilla Kring, an emerging international force in the fight to recognize night owls in the workplace. “We all have different day and night cycles and it’s time workplaces created new structures that support our different rhythms.”
    After struggling her whole working life to adapt to the dawn alarm that went with Denmark’s 8-to-4 workday, Dr. Kring, whose PhD was on work-life balance, began researching what was so different between her and morning people. She soon latched on to a University of Surrey study showing that early risers are more likely to have the long form of a gene called Period 3, while late risers are more likely to have a short form.
    Dr. Kring has labelled the larks A-people and the owls B-people.
    “B-people are not lazy,” she says. “It’s genetic.”
    This year, Ms. Kring launched B-Society, a group devoted to lobbying companies to stagger start times and better accommodate those whose circadian rhythms are a little delayed.”
    (Source: I don’t know if I can put a link here to the article on the newspaper’s website, but the original article was published Nov 12, 2007 and is easy to find.)

    As the only night owl in a family of larks, growing up in the US midwest where most businesses and offices are expected to be fully staffed and open at 8, and many schools start at 7:20 am or earlier (at least when I was little, where I was from), it was really difficult for me – I was sleep-deprived during many formative years, and I’m sure that my brain and body paid a high price for that. I was also constantly exposed to accusations of being lazy and disruptive (because I’d be the only one in the house awake after 10) from my family, who thought it was my choice to have such an energy pattern.

    It was great to move to the East Coast as an adult and find that office hours started there at 9, and even better to move to the UK where in many offices, one can slink in around 9:30 and it’s okay, as long as she/he makes up the time at the end of the day. I worked in Stockholm, Sweden one winter – where there is hardly any sunlight anyway, and only between about 10 am and 2 pm -, and it was a 7 am start at the office, considered relatively normal there(brutal!) The general Swedish schedule reminded me of the midwestern one I’d grown up with – work at 7, lunch at 11, dinner at 6, bed at 10.

    The more that respected researchers and writers like Martha can talk about the biological origins and unchangeable nature of people’s circadian rhythm/energy cycle/whatever-one-wants-to-call-it differences, especially in the US where folks tend to be so rigid and holier-than-thou about time and scheduling, the better!

  2. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I spent years being sleep deprived, and I did not even wait for my son to show up to be that way.
    I changed the rules and now plan around a 8 hours night, no matter what. This simple step did change my life ! I’m far happier, more energetic, and it takes a lot to stress me out.
    How come I had years of therapy and nobody mentionned sleep ? (or exercise for that matter, which did help a lot as well).
    Thank you for emphasizing it, Martha.

  3. Cheryl Kenyon
    Cheryl Kenyon says:

    That would be wonderful! But most people don’t work for themselves. We have no choice but to be to work at a set time.

  4. Johanna Wright
    Johanna Wright says:

    Thank you, Martha. Sleep, glorious sleep. I appreciate every night of good sleep now, (after spending most of last year sleep deprived after the birth of my daughter.) It makes an incredible difference. After about 10 months of fractured sleep, I could barely function. I was anxious and depressed. Sleep is a life changer.

  5. Maryann
    Maryann says:

    Love your insights, as always, Martha. I taught for years and coach teens. Schools are not very receptive to research, but oh how I wish they were. My students were zombies during 1st period, and it wasn’t their fault. I won’t coach a teen or young adult until afternoon, because it’s not effective in the a.m. Please spread the word about sleep deprivation and the research on teens. You change the world every day, but that’s one more layer that you could add to world changing. 🙂

  6. india flint
    india flint says:

    wise words indeed. and while we’re at it, wouldn’t it be lovely if those in power stopped messing with the clocks and having so-called “daylight saving time” which causes far more pain than good!

  7. Curt
    Curt says:

    My wife picked your latest book at the library and was reading it when she told me to read chapter 1,(we were in the middle of a consciousness discussion). I sat down to read it and couldn’t get thru page ten w/o tears. I will read it , just going to take me a while.Ordered it from Amazon this afternoon.

    Thank You
    Curt Yeager
    Cave Creek, AZ

  8. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    Although I work a set schedule most of the week, I don’t work my day job on Fridays so I am able to wake up naturally when my body is ready and it is the absolute best feeling. The best thing is that it doesn’t require sleeping until noon…I can sleep until 8 or 9 am and wake up feeling completely refreshed and ready to take on anything!

  9. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    When I tell people I “worked like a dog” what I really mean is that I ran around in a frenzy for awhile and then took a big fat nap. Like my dogs do.

  10. Angelita Surage
    Angelita Surage says:

    As a HS teacher and a parent, how do we get public schools to shift their thinking to a more natural, humane day for students…sports practice schedules/games at the end of the school day seem to dictate a too early start. A lot us are inattentive, sick/absent, comatose, and exhausted most of the time…

  11. Susan
    Susan says:

    I married into a Midwest rural farming family and community and have been thought of as very lazy (even though most of them won’t come out and say it to my face) for my whole married life…..but I’m NOT lazy!! I have been a night owl since I was a child, and that has never changed. My husband and his family, and rural people around here in general, get pretty self-righteous about things like this, and it has been a source of anger and pain for me at times. Everything- school, church, even garage sales that start at 7:00am!- in this community is set up and skewed toward early morning hours, and it makes life difficult for me. I have frequently asked my husband why early hours are somehow more morally righteous than those who keep later/different hours, but I have never gotten an answer to that. The bias is real in places like this, and I appreciated this article!!

  12. Sharon Teitelbaum
    Sharon Teitelbaum says:

    Regarding getting more sleep/rest —
    In Arianna Huffington’s keynote at the 2012 Massachusetts Conference for Women, she said she encourages women to get more sleep, and finds that when they do, they do better work and get promoted. She said, “I call this sleeping your way to the top.”

  13. Sheila Bergquist
    Sheila Bergquist says:

    I love your explanation about tribes being safer with both types of people. I have always been a night owl and so was my mom and other relatives. I wish our society would realize that it might benefit from catering to both night owls and morning people. Unfortunately, night owls seem to get the shaft as we are thought of as lazy. To all of my fellow night owls…we can rule the world…haha!

  14. Meg Amor
    Meg Amor says:


    I also am a night owl and LOVED this article. I accept that I naturally go to sleep around 5 or 6 am. I am at my most alert between 8 at night and 4 in the morning. I feel my clearest and most calm. If I can sleep through to 2pm or so, I get enough sleep. It still takes me a good two hours to get moving and by about 4pm, I’m bordering on semi-human. By about 6pm, I’m fairly operational.

    If I had to get up at 7am, I’d be dead in 6 months.

    I have a girlfriend at the moment who’s in Martha’s situation with her partner and they are finding it very tough. She’s fighting to maintain her right to be a night owl. And Mr Larkson is giving her a hard time about it. I don’t like having to defend me a night owl. It annoys me. And so I particularly like Martha’s explanation of days of old, where someone had to be awake at dawn and someone had to be awake during the night. It makes perfect sense.

    I think of the night watch on a ship too. Or airline pilots. Nurses, docs, any number of people who we need to be alive and on it – in the night owl phase. I’d like to see it get a lot more ‘air play.’ I’m sick of defending my natural rhythm for reasons that were set in industry and not human healthiness.

    Thanks and aloha Meg 🙂

  15. Laurel
    Laurel says:

    I retired a few years ago and have noticed that now that I am able to sleep until I feel rested in the morning I feel so much more energized and also happier! I also seem to get fewer colds – and if I don’t feel well I can stay in bed and rest until I do. It is really so lovely. It helps, too, that I no longer am heading off to a long commute and a stressful job every day. Other friends who are retired report the same thing. Many who have been sleep deprived and miserable for years are finally able to take care of themselves, get the rest they need, and enjoy life. Somehow things need to shift a people don’t have to wait until they are in their sixties to get enough sleep!

  16. T
    T says:

    WOW! Martha, while I happen to agree with most of what you write, including this article, it looks to me your clients might not be regular joe schmoes like me, because I tell you what, I would love a nap right now, but I think my boss would disagree. when you hold a 9 to 5 this suggestions sometimes sound from out of space…obviously you have never had a 9 to 5 clerical job and great for you! why should you when you don’t have to…(if you sense a hint of resentment, you would be correct!)

  17. Sp
    Sp says:

    I went from a night owl like Martha for my entire life to a morning person like Karen in the last few years, since starting my forties. It's still so strange to me to be completely the opposite of what I always was. I'm wondering if anyone has any idea how common that is or why it might have happened.

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